The Lady of the Lake is the name of the ruler of Avalon in the Arthurian legend. She plays a pivotal role in many stories, including giving King Arthur his sword Excalibur, enchanting Merlin, and raising Lancelot after the death of his father. Different writers and copyists give the Arthurian character the name Nimue, Viviane, Vivien, Elaine, Ninianne, Nivian, Nyneve, or Evienne, among other variations.
In medieval literature Edit
The Lancelot-Grail Cycle provides a backstory for the Lady of the Lake, Viviane, in the prose Merlin section, which takes place before the Lancelot Proper, though it was written later. She refuses to give him her love until he has taught her all his secrets, after which she uses her power to trap him either in the trunk of a tree or beneath a stone, depending on the story and author. Though Merlin, through his power of foresight knows beforehand that this will happen, he is unable to counteract Viviane because of the "truth" this ability of foresight holds. He decides to do nothing for his situation other than to continue to teach her his secrets until she takes the opportunity to entrap and entomb him in a tree, a stone or a cave.
The Post-Vulgate Cycle's second Lady of the Lake is called Ninianne, and her story is nearly identical to the one in the Lancelot-Grail, though it adds her bestowal of the magic sword Excalibur to Arthur. Sir Thomas Malory also uses both Ladies of the Lake in his Le Morte d'Arthur; he leaves the first one unnamed and calls the second one Nimue. Malory's original Lady is presented as an early benefactor of King Arthur who grants him Excalibur when his original sword is damaged. She is later beheaded by Sir Balin as a result of a kin feud between them (she blames him for the death of her brother and he blames her for the death of his mother) and a dispute over an enchanted sword.
According to the Vulgate Merlin, it was the goddess Diana's enchantment, given to Dyonas, that caused Viviane to be so alluring to Merlin. The Vulgate Lancelot tells us that she was the Queen of Sicily, but considered a goddess by her subjects. The continuation post-vulgata Merlin describes how she killed her lover to be with another man, but then she was beheaded by this man to be a murderess. This story was later transferred to a lake in France, and was later called the Lake of Diana.
Sir Thomas MaloryEdit
In Sir Thomas Malory's text, Le Morte D'Arthur, he refers to Nimue as one of two Ladies of the Lake. Malory dissociates Nimue from the general title of Lady of the Lake, so that when Sir Balin kills one of them, Malory describes Nimue as the "chief" and most important lady, and she plays a pivotal role in Arthurian court throughout the story. Without Nimue the Arthurian tale would not be as potent as it is with her. Malory's Nimue does not conform to the stereotypes surrounding her role. Firstly, it is not Nimue's hand that juts out the lake to hand Excalibur to Arthur. According to Malory, this hand belongs to the other Lady of the Lake. Furthermore, Malory starts to break Nimue out of the stereotypical role that women in Arthurian literature tend to fall under: Instead of serving the plot only as a temptress, Nimue becomes a recognizable force for good. In Malory's text, Nimue's character evolves from the dependent maiden to a woman who subtly takes charge in order to help and save the men around her. She is married to Sir Pelleas and outwardly acts as an obedient wife, while at the same time subtly helping sway the court in the right direction. When Malory was looking at other texts to find inspiration for his characters, he chose the best aspects of all the other Lady of the Lake characters, making her a compassionate, clever, strong willed, and sympathetic character. Nimue is a different kind of woman, one who does not shrink behind the male figures in her life. Instead, she is pragmatic, unflappable, and knowledgeable.
Similarly, Malory also introduces a character named Nyneve. This woman is another character for whom the title Lady of the Lake fits. Similar to Nymue, Nyneve is sympathetic to Arthur and also marries Pelleas. She heavily stresses justice based on the greater good. In Malory's text, Nyneve is loosely related to Arthur receiving Excalibur. In Le Morte D'Arthur this king receives Excalibur three times. Once from the stone, once from the unidentified Lady of the Lake and once in a battle from Nyneve. The distinction between the Lady of the Lake and Nyneve is evident through this example. It is important to note that when Arthur is in need, some incarnation of the Lady of the Lake, or her magic, reaches out to help him. Nyneve appears as the chivalric code changes; her appearance hints to the reader that something new will happen. This trend follows the logic that Malory is in a conspiracy of sorts with his reader. In this scenario, the author and the reader are in cahoots in order to achieve the wanted interpretation of the Arthurian legend. The first time the character named Nyneve appears is at Arthur's wedding. Though the characters of Nymue and Nyneve have distinct differences, they also possess many similarities. This makes sense because the characters were written by the same author. However, there are still other accurate spellings of the names which are not mentioned above.
Both characters appear in many other episodes of Malory's work. Each time the Lady reappears, it is at a pivotal moment of the episode, establishing the importance of her character within Arthurian literature, especially Le Morte d'Arthur. In that work, she transcends any notoriety attached to her character by aiding Arthur and other knights to succeed in their endeavors. After enchanting Merlin, Malory's Nimue replaces him as Arthur's adviser. She becomes the lover and eventual wife of Sir Pelleas and mother to his son Guivret. After the Battle of Camlann, she reclaims Excalibur when it is thrown into the lake by Sir Bedivere. Nimue is one of the four magical queens who bear the wounded Arthur away to Avalon, a setting tied to the Lady of the Lake in some literary traditions.
Later uses Edit
Walter Scott wrote an influential poem, The Lady of the Lake, in 1810, drawing on the romance of the legend, but with an entirely different story set around Loch Katrine in the Trossachs of Scotland. Scott's material furnished subject matter for La donna del lago, an opera by Gioachino Rossini which debuted in Naples in 1819. It was the first of a fashion for operas with Scottish settings and based on Scott's works, of which Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor is the most familiar. Franz Schubert set seven songs from Walter Scott's Lady of the Lake, including the three "Ellen songs" ("Ellens Gesang I", "Ellens Gesang II", and "Ellens Gesang III"), although Schubert's music to Ellen's Third Song has become far more famous in its later adaptation, known as "Ave Maria".
The full name of the University of Notre Dame at South Bend, Indiana, founded in 1842, is in French; Notre Dame du Lac. This is translated as "Our Lady of the Lake", making reference to Mary, mother of Jesus as the Lady of the Lake, evidencing fusion between Arthurian legend and middle-Christian history.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson adapted several stories of the Lady of the Lake for his 1859–1885 poetic cycle Idylls of the King. He splits her into two characters; Viviane is a deceitful villain who ensnares Merlin, while the Lady of the Lake is a benevolent figure who raises Lancelot and gives Arthur his sword.
In modern culture Edit
Modern authors of Arthurian fiction adapt the Lady of the Lake legend in various ways, often using two or more bearers of the title. Versions of the Lady (or Ladies) of the Lake appear in many other works of Arthurian fiction, including novels, films, television series, stage musicals, comics, and games. Though her identity may change, her role as a significant figure in the lives of both Arthur and Merlin remains consistent. Some examples of such 20th and 21st century works are listed below.
- Some authors choose to emphasize a single character. Nimue appears in T. H. White's 1958 novel The Once and Future King as a water nymph and Merlin's enchantress. True to the legend she traps Merlin in a cave, but Merlin does not convey it as negative, and even refers to it as a holiday.
- Mary Stewart's 1979 novel The Last Enchantment radically recasts the story of Merlin and Niniane, completely removing the aspect of malicious seduction and treachery dominant in the traditional version. In this depiction Merlin takes Niniane on as an apprentice, with her at first disguised as a boy, and willingly teaches her his magic. When her identity as a woman is discovered, they fall in love despite their age difference. As he gives her the secrets of his psychic abilities and how to control them, he seems to lose them himself – which Merlin does not mind. In a depleted, weakened condition, he takes ill and falls into a coma, and is believed to be dead. Niniane has him buried within his "crystal cave", where he awakes some time later. He escapes after a few weeks, through a combination of chance luck and ingenious planning, and travels incognito to let Arthur know he is still alive. Niniane takes Merlin's place as the court wizard-seer, while Merlin retires to the crystal cave and lives a quiet and happy life as a hermit.
- Marion Zimmer Bradley's 1983 novel The Mists of Avalon takes the tradition of multiple Ladies one step further. In Bradley's works, both the Lady of the Lake and the Merlin are offices. The Lady of the Lake is the title of the ruling priestess of Avalon, and the Merlin is a druid who has pledged his life to the protection of Britain. Various characters assume the title of the Lady, including Viviane, Niniane, Morgan le Fay (called "Morgaine" in this version), and Nimue, a sympathetic and tragic young priestess who falls in love with the Merlin but is duty bound to seduce and lure him to his death – following which she drowns herself. Even more Ladies of the Lake appear in Bradley's extended Avalon prequels.
- In the 1998 miniseries Merlin and its 2006 sequel Merlin's Apprentice, the characters of the Lady of the Lake and Nimue are separated, with the former being a goddess-like fae who is the sister of Queen Mab, and the latter being a noblewoman who is the object of Merlin's affections.
- In the music video for the song Growing on Me by the British rock band The Darkness the Lady of The Lake throws a guitar in a scene meant as a homage to the film Excalibur.
- The BBC 2008–2012 drama series Merlin also features two characters based on the Lady of the Lake. Nimueh serves as the primary antagonist of the series 1. The character has no connection to Merlin beyond his opposition to her plans, and her only connection to a lake is her use of a location called the Isle of the Blessed. The ninth episode of the series 2 is titled "The Lady of the Lake", wherein a sorceress named Freya dies and vows to repay Merlin for his kindness to her. In the series 3 finale, Freya, now a water spirit, gives Excalibur to Merlin so that he can give it to Prince Arthur Pendragon. In the series 5 finale, which features the Battle of Camlann, a despondent Merlin casts the sword back into Lake Avalon, where a hand, presumably Freya's, catches it.
- In BBC Radio 4's Afternoon Drama Pilgrim the antagonist Birdie (or Mrs Pleasance) is gradually revealled to be responsible for trapping Merlin ("The Drowned Mage") beneath a lake. Her story draws on that of Nimue.
- This interpretation is followed by Lerner and Loewe in the musical Camelot; Nimue lures Merlin away with the song "Follow Me".
- Vivienne is the Lady of the Lake in DC Comics, while Nimue is Madame Xanadu, her youngest sister, and their middle sister is Morgaine le Fey (given name, Morgana), and their surname is Inwudu. The Lady of the Lake has appeared in Hellblazer, Aquaman, and her sister's series.
Claimed locations of the LakeEdit
A number of locations in Great Britain are traditionally associated with the Lady of the Lake's abode. They include Martin Mere, Dozmary Pool, Llyn Llydaw, Llyn Ogwen, Llyn y Fan Fach, The Loe, Pomparles Bridge, Loch Arthur, and Aleines. Pergusa Lake in Sicily, in France, she is associated with the forest of Brocéliande.